Sober Island in the Trincomalee bay is now a popular holiday resort, converted by the Sri Lanka Navy after the war ended in 2009. But not many know its colourful history. The narrow strip of shallow lagoon between Great Sober Island and the mainland was known as ‘French Pass’ to signify the battle of Trincomalee.  [...]


Little known French connection and the battle of Trinco


Sober Island: Pic by Commodore Isira Kasiwatte

Sober Island in the Trincomalee bay is now a popular holiday resort, converted by the Sri Lanka Navy after the war ended in 2009. But not many know its colourful history. The narrow strip of shallow lagoon between Great Sober Island and the mainland was known as ‘French Pass’ to signify the battle of Trincomalee.  Some local naval historians say that it was called ‘French Fast’  as many French sailors had died of starvation on this  75-acre island.

The Navy website records that Sober Island was first occupied by Admiral Jacob Blaquet de la Haye of the French Navy in 1672 and Admiral Bailli De Suffren in 1782.  This speaks of a hidden part of our history in the 17th and 18th centuries when the French had apparently made several attempts to capture Ceylon in its entirety or gain control of the main sea port in Trincomalee – a subject that probably warrants more exploration by historians.

The fierce mid-sea battle of Trincomalee between the Royal Navy led by Vice Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and the French fleet commanded by Admiral Bailli De Suffren off Trincomalee Port on September 3, 1782 was the fourth encounter between the two Navies off the coasts of India. These sea battles had taken place before the Napoleonic era (1769-1821).

The skirmishes between the British and French of that era, correspond to the  enmity between the two nations for more territorial dominance and supremacy in the global theatre of trade which persisted through many bitter battles and encounters on ground and sea until the battle of Waterloo.

France had entered the American Revolutionary War in 1778 in the best interests of its territories in the continent. Ceylon was then a Dutch colony (1640-1796 AD), the Dutch being an ally of the French.  It was the era of discovery where European nations were on a quest to subjugate Asian and African nations to exploit trade.  Britain, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal were in the forefront of this bizarre rampage and in competition with each other so skirmishes on ground and at sea had been frequent.

Admiral Suffren’s mission was to safeguard French colonies in the Indian sub-continent and resist British expansionism in the region.  Under the rule of French East India Company, there were French enclaves on Indian soil along the south-east and south-west coasts; Pondicherry (Tamil Nadu), Karikat, Yanaon (Andhra Pradesh), Chandernagar (Kolkata, Bengal), Mahe on the estuary of Kaveri River (Kerala) and Coromandal on the Malabar Coast. Mahe fell to the British in 1779 which sparked the second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-1784). The self-proclaimed leader of Mysore, Hyder Ali Khan, secured a French alliance to fight the British.  The British had to commit more soldiers to this raging war as well.  It was a critical period for the British rulers.  It was under such circumstances that the battle of Trincomalee took place as the French feared losing their lucrative coastal enclaves to the British.

Admiral Suffren embarked on his mission at this decisive time. Aided by a 14 ship fleet, the French Admiral engaged the British troops in the battle of Sadras off the coast of southern India in February 1782.  Two more clashes ensued in the battle of Providien in April 1782 and the battle of Nagapatnam in July 1782 and  culminated off the Port of Trincomalee on September 3, 1782 – the battle of Trincomalee.

Both navies sustained heavy damages to their fleets after the battle of Providien. Providien was an islet situated south of Trincomalee harbour.

Following this battle, Vice Admiral Sir Hughes retreated to Trincomalee harbour which was under British rule for extensive repairs to his fleet.  Admiral Suffren opted to call over at Dutch controlled Batticaloa instead, for the same purpose.  After a lacuna, both fleets engaged in another battle, this time at sea off Nagapatnam in Southern India once again with an inconclusive outcome.  On July 28, 1782, Admiral Suffren was meeting the belligerent Hyder Ali Khan and received news of an oncoming French fleet with ammunition and supplies.

Reinvigorated by this news to fight another decisive battle,  he conceived a different tactic: to capture Trincomalee as a safe harbour. By August 21, 1782, he was ready to continue his mission.

With a strength of 2400 men, Admiral Suffren set out to capture the fort of Trincomalee held by the British.  There was another reason for his decision.  After the battle of Providien, Suffren’s fleet was anchored in the open at Cuddalore exposed to all probable vulnerabilities and he needed a safe anchorage.

His fleet landed in Trincomalee on August 25, 1782 and immediately mounted a heavy arms attack on the fortress and other fortifications, bombarding the fort for three consecutive days until they breached the boundary wall.  The British garrison under the command of Captain MacDowell finally surrendered on condition that the garrison was dispatched to Madras (now Chennai) which the French agreed to.

As these events unfolded, Vice Admiral Sir Hughes was notified of the French fleet anchored off Trincomalee harbour and immediately set off towards Trincomalee. Admiral Suffren was having a top level council of his captains to map out the next course of action.

Admiral Suffren was rather convinced that his fleet outnumbered the British fleet and therefore argued in favour of offensive action against British.  Surprisingly, his second in command and other captains vehemently opposed this. Admiral Suffren, having been informed of the enemy en-route, gave orders to prepare for battle but his troops were too lackadaisical to execute his orders.  The battle erupted with some confusing signals at the frontline on the part of the French off Trincomalee harbour.  With the lack of support from subordinates, the French sustained heavy damage.

The British Navy employed 12 ships while the French fought with 14 ships.  But, the death toll was heavy on both sides – the British were reported to have lost 51 sailors and the French 82 naval ratings.  The casualty rate stood at 283 and 255 for the British and French navies respectively. The magnitude of the battle of Trincomalee could be seen from these figures.


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